Christy Moore is a songwriter and an open-mic host, based in Austin, Texas. I first met her there at an open mic in 2012, called Flipnotics, which is no longer running. She had discovered my Thumbnail Guide to Paris Open Mics, Jam Sessions and other Live Music, and we got in touch. This year, 2015, after my visit to Austin, and playing in her open mic, she decided to write a story on her blog, called “Just Another Night in Austin with My Friends,”, that I liked so much I decided to ask her if I could “reprint” it here as a guest article on my blog. She agreed. My intention also is to answer some of her questions about the nature of open mics in Paris, Austin and in general. And after trying to figure out the best way to do that, I decided that it was probably simply to put some comments in at the end of the story. I invited readers also to put their own ideas in comments at the end of the story here as well, as I feel Christy has raised some essential questions about the nature of open mics, and why we do them, and that’s what this blog is all about – essentially! (By the way, do check out the original post of this story on Christy’s blog, so that you can also see the beautiful layout and photos she did!)
BY CHRISTY MOORE
Last week, we had an international visitor with us at Tom’s Tabooley Open Mic: Brad Spurgeon of Paris, France. Brad writes a blog on open mics and created the Thumbnail Guide to Open Mics in Paris which was indispensable to me last May when I was in Paris.
Seeing Brad got me to thinking about two things I noticed at the Parisian open mics that have been tumbling around in my head ever since I was there. The first thing was that I seemed to be the only person doing original songs. Everyone else was doing covers of American and British songs – rock ‘n roll, pop, blues, roots country, r & b. The second thing was that the audiences at the open mics in Paris are big and a whole bunch of the listeners aren’t players. At Le Highlander, for instance, the room was packed (not a scrap of a bench or a single stool left to sit on, people standing in the aisles) during the Wednesday night open mic I played at in May. The open mics at Le Tennessee on Thursday and the Pop-In on Sunday were nearly as crowded. People who are not players themselves come out to the open mics in Paris to hear the music. They aren’t exactly reverent, listening-room listeners. In fact, there’s a constant buzz of conversation – but the patrons are there for the music, and they are paying attention.
I noticed those two things because they are different from what I notice here in Austin. First of all, though plenty of people play covers, original songs are the currency with higher value at open mics here. I’ve been a regular partaker of live music in only two cities, Austin and Houston; in both those cities audiences have discerning tastes and an appetite for original music. At least that’s how it has been in the circles I’ve run in. Second, at open mics in Austin most (if not all) of the listeners are the other people on the list to play. Some open mic performers come promptly for sign up, leave the room until it’s their turn to play, and then leave for good as soon as they finish playing. Which means that often the audience is even smaller than the number of the people on the list.
Ever since I got back to Austin from Europe, I’ve been puzzling over the correlation between the two things: the audience and the songs. Is the audience bigger in Paris because the songs are covers? Are listeners more engaged because of that? I guess that would seem logical if you’re of a certain mindset. I know that many professional musicians spend their lives playing for audiences who only want to hear replicas of songs they’re already familiar with. And I’m guilty of that desire myself. When I go see Willie, I want to hear “Crazy” and “Hello Walls” and “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.” I can’t help it. On the other hand, much as I love Willie, a Willie Nelson concert is not my favorite kind of musical event. For me the best musical event is a live performance in a small venue. I have been transformed by music in that setting. Touched at my core. By songs I’ve never heard before.
I used to go see Townes Van Zandt play at the Old Quarter in Houston in the early 70s. The room, which was small, was usually full, but never overflowing. The chairs were not arranged auditorium style to accommodate a sell-out house. The furniture was arranged just like always – straight-backed chairs around rickety tables. Everyone had a seat albeit an uncomfortable one. There was not a crowd at the door trying to get in. Which is just as well because the neighborhood, on the east side of the county jail, was not exactly wholesome. In the break, Townes would sit at the bar or with someone in the audience. On more than one occasion he ended up at the table I was sitting at. He wasn’t famous. We didn’t know if he ever would be famous. Given his underwhelming delivery it seemed unlikely that he’d be up for a lot of glitz and glamour. Didn’t seem like he was better than those of us in the audience. That said he was crazy, give-you-goose-bumps good. There was absolutely no denying that.We knew we were in the presence of a great songwriter. And that we were witness to great art. We were hearing for the first time songs like “Pancho and Lefty” and “Rex’s Blues” and “To Live’s to Fly.” And it was magic. So much more amazing hearing those songs for the first time from the humble songwriter’s mouth than hearing any cover of “Yesterday” or “Desperado” could ever be.
If no one had been there to hear those songs or if the people who were there weren’t interested in anything but covers, would things have gone the same? Would Townes have kept finding the same kind of beauty in his songs, would he have written as many songs, would he have written new songs that were as good if no one ever sat there getting goose bumps listening to the songs he’d already written? Maybe. Maybe not, though. I could be wrong, but it seems to me that while Townes was touching those of us listening, we were touching him. Art isn’t created in a vacuum. It is created in context. A million variables in that context — time, place, drug use, love, loneliness, money, temperament. One important aspect of the context, though, is the relationship between the artist and the audience. Isn’t part of what inspires and motivates artists the possibility they may create something that touches someone else and transforms them even a tiny bit? In order to have that possibility, you have to have a receptive and discerning audience. Seems to me that the first wave discoverers of art are part of the art. Maybe I’m being grandiose to think that I might be part of the art I watched and listened to in the Old Quarter 40 years ago. Whether I’m right about that or not, I know it felt like those songs touched me at a cellular level and shaped me.
In my life I’ve felt that connection not just with Townes Van Zandt. I’ve felt it with Steve Fromholz, Nanci Griffith, Shake Russell, Blaze Foley, B.W. Stevenson, Uncle Walt’s Band, Tom Russell, Lyle Lovett, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Eliza Gilkyson, Danny Schmidt, Chris Smithers, BilStevieRayly Joe Shaver, James McMurtry. All songwriters I heard first in live performance. Not on the radio. Not on the stereo. I heard them and their songs for the first time at places like the Cactus Café or Anderson Fair or Sand Mountain or the Checkered Flag or The Continental Club or Antones or La Zona Rosa.
The claim I want to make is that all of those artists exist at least in part because of the audiences who listened to them before they had a record contract or a following, appreciated what they heard, communicated their response. I realize that I’m preaching to the choir since most of the people who’ll read this are songwriters, but I’d like to see audiences at open mics here in Austin as robust as the audiences at open mics in Paris. Why not? I hear original songs played on an open mic stage every week from humble songwriters that touch me at my core. Isn’t that better than even the best cover of “Brown Eyed Girl?”
Last week at Tom’s Tabooley Open Mic our international visitor, Brad Spurgeon, for one, played a great original song. Brad was one of two newcomers to our open mic. The other one, Erez, illustrates my point perfectly. Erez is a fantastic Austin-based songwriter and musician who has a growing following. We were delighted to have him grace our stage with his song “On the Way to Louisiana” which is a beauty. Another fine songadaCraigwriter, Craig Irvin, debuted his new song, “Hard Times Settle In.” Veteran Tom’s player, David Clauss, opened us up with a song adapted from a Rumi poem. Stuart Burns did two great original songs and then wowed us with a fantastic cover of Texas songwriter Tom Russell’s masterpiece, “Gallo del Cielo” which goes to show that I’m not against all covers. In fact I’m all for covers of songs by Texas songwriters. Magic Jack McCabe closed us out. In between we were blessed with original songs from Gregg Miller, Will Gullatt, Tyler Rust, and Owl Offer.
This week we’re back. Same time, same place. New magic. Sign up at 6:30. Music from 7 to 9.